The Truants

Chapter VIII

Gideon’s Fleece

A.E.W. Mason

MILLICENT was reluctant to add any word of explanation. She sat with her eyes upon the fire, waiting, it seemed, until Pamela should see fit to go. But Pamela remained, and of the two women she was the stronger in will and character. She sat, with her eyes quietly resting upon Millicent’s face; and in a little while Millicent began reluctantly to speak. As she spoke the disdainful droop of her lips became more pronounced, and her words were uttered in a note of petulance.

“He would stay to retrieve his failure. You remember?” she said.

“Yes,” replied Pamela.

“I wrote to him again and again to come home, but he would not. I couldn’t make him see that he wasn’t really a match for the people he must compete with.”

Pamela nodded her head.

“You wrote that to him?”

Millicent lifted her face to Pamela’s.

“I put it, of course, with less frankness. I offered him, besides, the rest of my money, so that he might try again; but he refused to take a farthing more. It was unreasonable, don’t you think? I could have got on without it, but he couldn’t. I was very sorry for him.”

“And you expressed your pity, too?” asked Pamela.

“Yes, indeed,” said Millicent, eagerly. “But he never would accept it. He replied cheerfully that something was sure to happen soon, that he would be sure to find an opening soon. But, of course, he never did. It was not likely that with his inexperience he ever would.”

Tony’s own words had recoiled upon him. On the evening when he had first broached his plan to Millicent in Berkeley Square, he had laid before her, amongst others, this very obstacle, thinking that she ought to be aware of it, and never doubting but that he would surmount it. The honesty of his nature had bidden him speak all that he had thought, and he had spoken without a suspicion that his very frankness might put in her mind an argument to belittle him. He had seemed strong then, because he knew the difficulties, and counted them up when she omitted them. His image was all the more pale and ineffectual now because, foreknowing them well, he had not mastered them.

“I wrote to him at last that it wasn’t any use for him to go on with the struggle. He would not tell me how he lived, or even where. I had to send my letters to a post-office, and he called for them. He must be living in want, in misery. I wrote to him that I had guessed as much from his very reticence, and I said how sorry I was. Yet, in spite of what I wrote,” and here her voice hardened a little; she showed herself as a woman really aggrieved, “in spite of what I wrote, he answered me in a quite short letter, saying that I must not expect to hear from him again until he had recovered from his defeat and was re-established in my eyes. I can’t understand that, can you?”

“I think so,” Pamela answered. She spoke gently. For there was something to be said upon Millicent’s side. The sudden collapse of her exaggerated hopes, the dreary life she led, and her natural disappointment at the failure of the man whom she had married, when once he stepped down into the arena to combat with his fellow-men. These things could not fail to provoke, in a nature so easily swayed from extreme to extreme as Millicent’s, impatience, anger, and a sense of grievance. Pamela could hold the balance fairly enough to understand that. But chiefly she was thinking of Tony—Tony hidden away in some lodging in New York, a lodging so squalid that he would not give the address, and vainly seeking for an opportunity whereby he would make a rapid fortune; very likely going short of food, and returning home at night to read over a letter from his wife of which every line cried out to him, with a contemptuous pity, “You are a failure. You are a failure. Come home.” Pamela’s heart went out in pity, too. But there was no contempt in her pity. She could not but admire the perseverance with which, on this, the first time that he had ever walked hand in hand with misery, he endured its companionship.

“I think I understand,” she said. “You say he answered you in that short way in spite of what you wrote. I think it was not in spite of, but because——”

Millie Stretton shook her head.

“No, that’s not the reason,” she replied. She gave one herself, and it fairly startled Pamela. “Tony no longer cares for me. He means to go out of my life altogether.”

Pamela remembered what store Tony had always set upon his wife, how he had spoken of her that July morning in the park, and how he had looked at the moment when he spoke. It was just because he cared so much that he had taken his wild leap into the dark. That, at all events, she believed, and in such a strain she replied. But Millicent would not be persuaded.

“Before Tony went away,” she said stubbornly, “he let me see that he no longer cared. He was losing the associations which used to be vivid in his memory. Our marriage had just become a dull, ordinary thing. He had lost the spirit in which he entered into it.”

Again Tony’s indiscreet frankness had done him wrong. The coon song, which was always to be associated in his mind with the summer night, and the islets in the sea, and the broad stretch of water trembling away in the moonlight across to the lights of the yachts in Oban Bay, had become a mere coon song “sung by some one.” Millicent had often remembered and reflected upon that unfortunate sentence, and as her disappointment in Tony increased and the pitying contempt gradually crept into her mind, she read into it more and more of what Tony had not meant.

“I am sure you are wrong,” said Pamela, very earnestly. “He went away because he cared. He went away to keep your married life and his from fading away into the colourless, dull, ordinary thing it so frequently becomes. He has lost ground by his failure. No doubt your own letters have shown that; and he is silent now in order to keep what he has. You have said it yourself. He will not write until he is able to re-establish himself in your thoughts.”

But would Tony succeed? Could he succeed? The questions forced themselves into her mind even while she was speaking, and she carried them back to her room. The chances were all against him. Even if he retrieved his failure, it would be a long time before that result was reached—too long, perhaps, when his wife was Millicent, and such creatures as Lionel Callon walked about the world. And he might never succeed at all, he was so badly handicapped.

Pamela was sorely tempted to leave the entanglement alone to unravel itself. There was something which she could do. She was too honest to close her eyes to that. But her own history rose up against her and shook a warning finger. It had a message to her ears never so loudly repeated as on this night. “Don’t move a step. Look on! Look on!” She knew herself well. She was by nature a partisan. Let her take this trouble in hand and strive to set it right, her whole heart would soon be set upon success. She was fond of Millicent already; she would become fonder still in the effort to save her. She liked Tony very much. The thought of him stoutly persevering, clinging to his one ambition to keep his married life a bright and real thing in spite of want and poverty—and even his wife’s contempt, appealed to her with a poignant strength. But she might fail. She had eaten of failure once, and, after all these years, the taste of it was still most bitter in her mouth.

She fought her battle out over her dying fire, and at the end two thoughts stood out clearly in her mind. She had given her promise to Tony to be a good friend to his wife, and there was one thing which she could do in fulfilment of her promise.

She walked over to her window and flung it open. She was of the women who look for signs; no story quite appealed to her like the story of Gideon’s Fleece. She looked for a sign now quite seriously. If a thaw had set in, why, the world was going a little better with her, and perhaps she might succeed. But the earth was iron-bound, and in the still night she could hear a dry twig here and there snapping in the frost. No, the world was not going well. She decided to wait until things improved.

But next day matters were worse. For one thing John Mudge went away, and he was the only person in the house who interested her at all. Furthermore, Lionel Callon stayed, and he announced some news.

“I have been chosen to stand for Parliament at the next election,” he said; and he named an important constituency. Pamela noticed the look of gratification, almost of pride, which shone at once on Millie’s face, and her heart sank. She interpreted Millie’s thought, and accurately. Here was a successful man, a man who had got on without opportunities or means, simply by his own abilities; and there, far away in New York, was her failure of a husband. Moreover, Callon and Millicent were much together; they had even small secrets, to which in conversation they referred. The world was not going well with Pamela, and she waited for the fleece to be wet with dew.

After four days, however, the frost showed signs of breaking. A thaw actually set in that evening, and on the next morning two pieces of good news arrived. In the first place, Pamela received a letter from Alan Warrisden. There was nothing of importance in it, but it gave her his actual address. In the second, Millie told Frances Millingham that she had received news that Sir John Stretton was really failing, and although there was no immediate danger, she must hold herself in readiness to return to town. This to Pamela was really the best news of all. This morning, at all events, Gideon’s Fleece was wet. She looked out some trains in the railway guide, and then sent a telegram to Warrisden to come by a morning train. She would meet him at the railway station. The one step in her power she was thus resolved to take.

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